All of a sudden the UK’s political parties want to have nothing to do with nuclear power.
This much is clear from the party manifestos – notably that of the Conservative Party, published yesterday.
OK, it does not announce an end to Britain’s massive 10GW nuclear power programme set out in the Cameron-Osborne years of government.
In fact, it does not even mention nuclear power. Instead it states that a future Tory government will remain sublimely indifferent to how our electricity is generated, so long as it’s reliable, cheap and low carbon:
“Above all, we believe that energy policy should be focused on outcomes rather than the means by which we reach our objectives. So, after we have left the European Union, we will form our energy policy based not on the way energy is generated but on the ends we desire – reliable and affordable energy, seizing the industrial opportunity that new technology presents and meeting our global commitments on climate change.”
Just compare that to the July 2015 statement of then energy secretary Amber Rudd to the House of Commons energy select committee, seeking to justify the astonishing cost of the Hinkley C nuclear power station to energy users, that: “We have to have secure base-load, so you should not be surprised that we are prepared to pay more for that in order to ensure nuclear is part of the mix. The requirement for nuclear is absolute.”
Or here’s the line from the 2015 manifesto, when nuclear power was, apparently, something to be proud of and trumpeted: “All parts of the UK will soon be helping to deliver secure, affordable and low-carbon energy, from the Hinkley Point nuclear power station … significant expansion in new nuclear and gas … signing a deal to build the first new nuclear plant in a generation …”
Because now, it’s all about keeping costs down, says the 2017 manifesto: “We want to make sure that the cost of energy in Britain is internationally competitive, both for businesses and households … Our ambition is that the UK should have the lowest energy costs in Europe, both for households and businesses. So as we upgrade our energy infrastructure, we will do it in an affordable way, consistent with that ambition.”
And one sure way not to deliver cheap energy to the UK is to build new nuclear power stations. if Hinkley C is ever built, UK energy users will be paying more than double the current wholesale power price, inflation adjusted, for 35 years from the time it opens, something that could cost the UK economy £50-100 billion.
Labour and the Libdems: a pocketful of mumbles
By contrast, Labour does give nuclear power a specific mention it is manifesto – just a rather small one that adds up to no real commitment to anything.
“The UK has the world’s oldest nuclear industry, and nuclear will continue to be part of the UK energy supply. We will support further nuclear projects and protect nuclear workers’ jobs and pensions. There are considerable opportunities for nuclear power and decommissioning both internationally and domestically.”
Let’s decipher. Yes, nuclear power will continue to be part of energy supply as we still have quite a few old nuclear power stations that we are not about to shut down.
What about “We will support further nuclear projects”? What kind of nuclear projects? How about decommissioning, nuclear waste management, production of medical isotopes … ? Do these projects include nuclear power? They’re not telling. Most likely (after all we know that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is firmly anti-nuclear) these are warm but empty words to placate powerful nuclear-supporting trades unions like the GMB and Unite.
And what kind of ‘support’? Speeches in the House of Commons? Or tens of billions of pounds of hard cash. It’s hard to say. Does this add up to a firm commitment to build a fleet of new nuclear power stations at massive public cost? Hardly.
The Libdem position is similarly weak, promising only that “We will … Accept that new nuclear power stations can play a role in electricity supply provided concerns about safety, disposal of waste and cost are adequately addressed, new technology is incorporated, and there is no public subsidy for new build.”
We know perfectly well that nuclear power is hugely expensive, intrinsically unsafe due to its potential for massive harm (look only to Fukushima), can only operate with enormous public subsidies, and that no one has yet figured out a way to keep nuclear wastes safely contained for tens of thousands of years, an informed interpretation of this statement might go: “Nuclear power? Not on your nelly!”
As for the Greens, they have yet to publish their manifesto but there can be no doubt that their long term opposition to nuclear power will hold.
UKIP has not yet published a manifesto, but in 2015 said it supported “a diverse energy market based on coal, nuclear, shale gas, conventional gas, oil, solar and hydro, as well as other renewables where these can be delivered at competitive prices.” Which if course nuclear cannot.
Meanwhile the SNP says it wants no new nuclear power stations in Scotland; and Plaid Cymu leader Leanne Wood is opposed to new nuclear power, but her executive supports Wylfa because of the jobs. Got that?
Why the turnaround?
It has surely become clear to politicians that nuclear power is in a death spiral, terminally afflicted by:
very high costs, at least double those of conventional generation, which can only be carried by governments, taxpayers and energy users at the expense of more deserving and productive investments;
apparently unconstructable reactor designs hit by massive cost overruns and delays in France, Finland and the USA;
the bankruptcy of the world’s biggest nuclear power contractor, the Toshiba-owned Westinghouse – lined up to build a massive new nuclear complex at Moorside in Cumbria with three AP1000 reactors – mainly as a result of these cost overruns and delays on AP1000 projects in the USA;
the parlous condition of the French parastatals EDF and Areva, which survive only thanks to the inexhaustible largesse of French taxpayers;
investor reluctance to have anything to do with new nuclear power stations unless returns are guaranteed in cast iron contracts at huge expense to taxpayers;
the continuing lack of a long term solution for nuclear waste storage / disposal;
the inflexibility of nuclear power stations, which means that they overproduce when electricity is in surplus, while being unable to keep up with demand when power is desperately needed;
the continuing precipitous decline in the cost of disruptive ‘new energy’ technologies such as solar, wind, including offshore wind, grid-scale batteries, power to gas, smart grid, set to continue and gather pace for many years to come.
So what’s the alternative? Given that onshore wind is already the cheapest new source of power generation, and offshore wind costs are falling rapidly (and are already far cheaper than new nuclear), wind power really should have a big role. So check out this statement from the Conservative manifesto:
“While we do not believe that more large-scale onshore wind power is right for England, we will maintain our position as a global leader in offshore wind and support the development of wind projects in the remote islands of Scotland, where they will directly benefit local communities.”
This commits a future Tory government to maintaining a strong pipeline of large offshore wind projects, while opening the door to medium and small scale onshore wind power in England, as well as to large scale wind on Scottish islands and elsewhere in the devolved nations. What it ultimately means is that wind power has a great future in the UK – in stark contrast to previous policy.
Just in case I’m sounding all enthusiastic about the Conservative manifesto, don’t get me wrong. It is the worst on environment, energy and climate of the three main parties, and contains big breaks for fossil fuels including fracking. It’s just a great deal better than we might have guessed a week ago.
And on nuclear power, they (notably the intelligent and pragmatic BEIS secretary Greg Clark) have clearly seen sense.
Libdems set the pace on green energy
And if in some dramatic switch of fortunes Labour wins the election, its manifesto also signals a big switch to renewables:
“To ensure: security of energy supply and ‘keep the lights on’; energy costs are affordable for consumers and businesses; we meet our climate change targets and transition to a low-carbon economy … We are committed to renewable energy projects, including tidal lagoons, which can help create manufacturing and energy jobs as well as contributing to climate change commitments.”
But best of all on renewables are the Libdems, who promise (inter alia) to (direct quotes):
Expand renewable energy, aiming to generate 60% of electricity from renewables by 2030, restoring government support for solar PV and onshore wind in appropriate locations (helping meet climate targets at least cost) and building more electricity interconnectors to underpin this higher reliance on renewables.
Support investment in cutting-edge technologies including energy storage, smart grid technology, hydrogen technologies, offshore wind, and tidal power (including giving the go-ahead for the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon), and investing heavily in research and development.
Pass a Zero-Carbon Britain Act to set new legally binding targets to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2040 and to zero by 2050.
Set up a British Housing and Infrastructure Development Bank to mobilise investment into the low-carbon and sustainable infrastructure the UK needs to remain competitive.
Hinkley C – dead in the water?
There’s just one awkward remaining question: what of the Hinkley C nuclear power station in Somerset, given that contracts between the UK government and EDF to build the twin-unit EPR have already been signed.
Given: complications with Brexit; the specialist, skilled, experienced immigrant labour that would needed for EPR construction; the UK’s departure from the Euratom treaty; the decline in the value of EDF’s revenues with the weaker pound; continuing challenges with the Flamanville reactor and elsewhere with the EPR reactor design; and EDF’s crippling and under-budgetted financial obligations to decommission its nuclear power stations in France … it may well never happen.
Another factor is the new President Macron, who might reasonably prefer that EDF conserve its dwindling resources rather than blow them on a potentially ruinous nuclear project in the UK.
This line of thinking was confirmed this week by his appointment of prominent green activist Nicolas Hulot as the minister in charge of environment and energy – the same Hulot who last month told Liberation newspaper that “While elsewhere the energy transition accelerates, EDF gets closer to Areva, overinvests in costly nuclear projects like Hinkley Point, and does not invest enough in renewables.”
As Reuters reported, “investors expected a pro-nuclear energy policy from the new government. But the appointment of Hulot – France’s best-known environmental campaigner and a former television documentary maker – as ecology minister raised doubts in investors’ minds about the strength of that commitment.”
Not with a bang, nor even a whimper
It now looks increasingly as if the Hinkley C project may be quietly shelved, or even cancelled, with the agreement of both UK and French governments.
And beyond that the prospects for new nuclear power in the UK have never been gloomier. The only way new nuclear power stations will ever be built in the UK is with massive political and financial commitment from government. That commitment is clearly absent.
So yes, this finally looks like the end of the UK’s ‘nuclear renaissance’. Not with a bang, nor even with a whimper, but with a deep and profoundly meaningful silence. Not a moment too soon.
Oliver Tickell is contributing editor at The Ecologist.
Dr Ian Fairlie is an independent consultant on environmental radioactivity. He formerly was a senior scientist in the Civil Service and worked for the TUC as a researcher between 1975 and 1990.